Best friends Helen (Angela Pleasence) and Anne (Lorna Heilbron) are taking a break in the isolated country mansion of the former, which is situated in the middle of a forest next to a secluded lake. There's hardly anyone about that Anne can see, and they're some way away from the local village, but perhaps this peace and quiet are what Helen needs because she has a history of being highly strung, and she has recently felt betrayed by a different friendship which ended badly. But how badly did it really end? Could there have been something sinister going on?
Helen doesn't like to talk about what happened to her former pal, but we can guess there's something up when the first few shots include a naked body lying at the shore of that lake, as if dumped there. When Anne remarks on a walk soon after they arrive that it's a beautiful area, Helen (Pleasence as notably weird as her more famous father could be) is quick to point out someone drowned there, as if to bring the mood down, but she almost needn't have bothered because this was one of those horror movies which relied on the oppressive atmosphere conjured up by its director, in this case Spaniard in Britain José Ramón Larraz for whom this was one of four (!) movies he directed in 1974.
The most celebrated one of those from that golden year for him was Vampyres, his gory lesbian bloodsuckers romp for which the clinically-named Symptoms could have been a companion piece: they both feature English country houses in the woods, and they both create their terrors out of a fear of homosexuality in women. Here it was Helen who was gay, or so we can work out from her occasional tics and behaviour, apparently bringing Anne to the place so she can get to know her better, if you know what I mean, yet her anxiety keeps getting in the way. Something is upsetting her, be it her previous relationship or the handyman Brady (Peter Vaughan) who "disgusts" her.
Seeing as how Vaughan was already a past master at menace, we wonder if Helen's revulsion at him is because of her sexuality, or because of his actually being up to evil in among those dense trees. Or should we say repulsion rather than revulsion, because there was a certain Roman Polanski movie, a horror flick made when he was an emigré in Britain centered around a young woman having a potentially murderous breakdown, that Larraz's efforts here bore quite some resemblance to, as if he had found the script of that sixties film and mixed up the pages of Vampyres with its own to conjure up a whole new film, though one which came across as unmistakably derivative.
At the time, the few who saw Symptoms were wont to think it was the better movie, but that was plainly wrong, it wasn't bad but its rather uncomfortable rejection of lesbianism by depicting it as a mental illness doesn't play too well in modern times. It was fair enough to be scared of a vampire even if she did represent a sexuality that was nothing to do with being satisfied by men, because, hey, you're supposed to be scared of (most) vampires, but to place such desires in an unstable mind and then turn her into an object of threat and intimidation skirted too close to prejudice, especially as it was Helen's sole defining characteristic. If you could deal with that, then there were compensations in Larraz's way with a shot mixing lyricism with rural disquiet; the mood was the biggest strength here, and with its creeping pace and sense of something terrible about to happen, never mind having already happened, this was easier to appreciate tonally than thematically. Music by John Scott.